The Magmas of Madhu Basu 

by Jacques Depauw, Magazine Indes (India Magazine), october 2005


Madhu Mangal Basu, better known as Madhu Basu was born in Kolkata (Calcutta) in November 1956 of parents who migrated to India from the present Bangla Desh at the time of the 1947 partition. The family lived in the city suburbs and as a child, Madhu  enjoyed watching craftsmen sculpting  statuettes of gods and goddesses. But it was drawing that attracted him most and gave him the most pleasure. Madhu begun his professional life as a taxi driver but his job was only a means of subsistence that enabled him to attend the night schools for Fine Arts.In 1985, Basu met a French tourist, and what followed was the typical love story. The couple got married a year later and after getting his degree from the Kolkata School of Fine arts, Madhu came to live and work in France.

Soon Madhu Basu was admitted to the Paris School of Fine Arts as a guest artist and attended an open workshop held by several professors. He therefore got a chance to work with Alberola and Velickovic. He studied painting techniques, materials and pigments but decided to concentrate on drawing. One of his favourite subjects was the study of figures moving to music.


A few years followed with Madhu looking to find and establish his own style. His early canvasses are full of human figures, placed close to each other or forming compact groups in motion. His later paintings however, have characters spread over large spaces.


It was in 1999 that he decided for the first time to focus on two objects that had already figured in his previous paintings and were to become the hallmark of his paintings–pots and bowls.


Madhu's pots are drawn on paper. Roughly spherical, they are depicted in a somewhat offhand manner which enhances their low but large necks pierced with a small opening. Shadows and light reflections reinforce this impression although only slightly as the pictorial matter is very thick even for a work on paper, imitating as it does the  opacity of terracotta. Yet, Madhu's paintings are far from being realistic. His choice of colors - one for each painting – precludes any such interpretation. The colours used - green, red, yellow and brown - have something provocative about them so that we are discouraged from associating these everyday objects with real life memories. I doubt that the pots could be identified as museum objects  or daily items. Certainly, they recall such objects but resurface from the depths of Madhu's pictorial imagination after having been assimilated.


The pots are not placed on any surface material. Nor are there any defined horizons such as table edges. They do not appear to be suspended either. The offhand approach does not create a deceptive sense of space. All we can say about them is that the pots and bowls are there and –mark the paper sheet with their colours. Madhu's colours are stronger towards the bottom and then gradually grow lighter till they almost disappear towards the top. Madhu does not attempt to create an illusion. The space depicted is only that presented by the paper sheet. His painting is therefore in no way a trap.


In his Magmas series (the title given by Madhu to his paintings),  the bowls and pots remind us of humble objects but are actually born of the artist’s imagination. Madhu begins his drawings on the completely bleached beige canvas held vertically. Like  the pots, his canvasses are devoid of all realism, not because of their vibrant colours but by his use of the colour black. The colour black, whether in drawings, engravings or photographs, invariably introduces an element of abstraction. The shape may recall a physical object, but the black colour removes all materiality from them.  


The bowls are depicted in pairs that form a whole. The point of view differ from one painting to another so that their shapes vary  from the circle (as they would appear if viewed from  above) to more or less open oval shapes. Without actually going so far as to depict profiles (which would reduce their curvature). They are sometimes turned towards each other and sometimes away. Apart from the pots there are also stains that recall a liquid element. A lighter black gives these stains transparency and suggests space without limits or reference points.  


Madhu places his bowls at different heights which he says he decides at random and therein lies the challenge. - how does Madhu plan each composition? Madhu replies that his paintings are in some ways always the same and always different. His compositon is always the same in that he always adds rectangles. The  round or oval shapes of the bowls are balanced by the oblong shapes across nearly the entire width of the canvas. But his compositions are also always different depending on the placing and shape of the bowls.  Their colours also change – from ultramarine blue to cadmium red, phtalocyanine green to ultramarine violet  - and plenty of black - carbon black, vine black, ivory black and Roman black.  If we take a closer look at Madhu's black rectangles – we see that the density and depth of the black comes from several layers of pigments painted one upon the other. One can tell the order in which they have been painted from the edges of the rectangle or even from the canvas chassis (these portions should be left outside the frames!). These rectangles help us distinguish between the various nuances of the colour black.


No matter what the size of the canvas (they vary between 35X27cm to 250X170cm), it is the bowls that first draw the viewer's attention. They are followed immediately by  perception of the whole or the painting would be a failure. And if they succeed in drawing our attention, it is in order to give us a pictorial experience, to take us inside this pictorial experience. 


Madhu's paintings answer certain elementary questions regarding painting. They combine shape, colour and movement so dear to Ignace Meyerson. To this list of qualities I would like to add representation and abstraction. Each painting narrates the history of its composition whose conditions have been decided arbitrarily by the artist. What follows composition is the quest for satisfaction till the ever mysterious moment when the artist declares the work finished.  The entire process may however last weeks. "I have to find the solution" is Madhu's usual reaction to an incomplete painting. 


Each of his paintings is therefore a piece of pictorial meditation that ensures the painting dose not  express anything but itself. But unlike a lot of other painters, Madhu Basu does not yield to minimalism. Indeed, he moves away from it and by combining allusions (to simple objects) and simple geometrical figures and without undermining his search, he gives  his work almost inspite of himself, a singular poetic power that appeals to our sensitivity, imagination and powers of reflection.  


Madhu is also capable of tearing himself away from his beloved "Magmas" to spend a week in Lyons with about fifty other artists and paint a lion (both male and female and in bright colours as inspired by the source).  

The "Magmas" (the title is a sort of antiphrasis since these pictures are very well ordered) are a treasure which introduce us to a living pictorial world.




by Jacques Depauw
by Gérard Xuriguera
by Françoise Monnin

by Christian Noorbergen